For “old school” folks, who like paper calendars, 2023 might bring something new and important – a special date, circled, starred, hearted, or otherwise celebrated on the family calendar. The date of our Service Member’s transition or retirement from military service. A date when you stop being an active-duty, reserve, or national guard family and start being a veteran family.
For some, it’s a date that brings joy, excitement, and anticipation of everything around the corner. It can feel like the start of a new adventure filled with possibilities. It can feel like a dance.
For others, it is a date that brings apprehension, loss, fear, and maybe worry. It can feel like the end of something that has defined so much of your marriage and your life. It can feel like standing on the edge of a cliff, slightly uncertain if the pack on your back is properly rigged to support your descent. Will you soar or flop?
After working in the transition space for a few years my sense is, for most, a transition seems to be a mixture of both sets of big feelings. There can be a heaviness about the big decisions that lay ahead, and there can be a smile, and a skip in your step as you think about a life lived by your own rules.
FOUR TIPS FOR NAVIGATING THE TRANSITION
Here are a few tips to consider, no matter how close you are to that circled date.
IT IS NEVER TOO EARLY
Transitioning from service brings big questions. “Where will we live if we can live anywhere?” “What do we want for our family’s future?” “What might I do differently if there were no training dates or deployments on the calendar?”
Most people working in transition support encourage Service Members to begin thinking about their transition 3-4 years prior. Tasks like building their network, doing information interviews to learn about industries, growing their skill sets, and introspection about who they are without a uniform are all things one can do before there is a date on the calendar. One small step at a time. The earlier you begin, the smaller the steps you need to take each time.
The same is true for spouses. It can be easy as spouses to believe that there isn’t much we can do until we have a date. Military life has taught us to wait and wait and wait and then act. Transition is unique and warrants us acting before we’re ready and acting before we know what we’re acting on.
It is true that for some, a retirement or transition is a thing to be kept secret for fear that saying the word out loud might lead to lost opportunities. I understand that fear. If that is where you are, know that there is much you can do in private, with the support of a few close friends. Consider the next 3 tips.
INVEST IN COMMUNICATION
Transition can be hard on a couple. The longer you’ve navigated military life together, the harder the experience can be to redefine yourself outside of this community. Often Service Members are surprised by the loss they feel, and how lost they become. Redefining who you are, if you’ve defined it by your service, is a lot to shoulder. And if both spouses are shouldering that reinvention at the same time, it can get heavy.
So, here’s what you can do. Start now. Start now with the conversations about your dreams – for yourself, your marriage, and your family. If you don’t have those lines of communication available, begin to build them. Use one Friday evening a month to dream, together. Ask your partner to talk about what they hope for in life after service. This can be everything from location dreams to finances to career paths and memory-making goals. Share your stories as well. And what if military life has taken a toll on your ability to dream together and share how you feel about life? In that case, a therapist might be a great tool for building a stronger foundation now to support a stronger transition later. This doesn’t have to be a couple’s therapist (though I’m an advocate for that) – instead, it could be your own.
LEARN YOUR RESOURCES
There are thousands of resources, government programs, and non-profits with the mission of supporting the successful transition of military service members. What has been incredible in recent years is that many of those same organizations have recognized that a successful service member transition is inextricably tied to a successful family transition – including the spouse. We help the spouse; we help the service member. Many organizations and agencies have opened their doors widely to spouses. Know the resources and use them.
This could include attending the transition support class for your service member’s branch. If you need to attend more than once, do it! It can be so much information to take in. Using your resources can also mean knowing which are open to spouses. This isn’t a full list, just a list of favorites.
Mentorship resources: ACP, Veterati, Military Spouse Advocacy Network
Business development incubators: Bunker Labs, Warrior Rising, AMSE, The Rosie Network
Personal development: Leader Transition Institute, Four Block, and Pride & Grit
Career advancement support: IVMF, ActNowEducation, Hiring Our Heroes Fellowship, MySECO
It’s impossible to know what you don’t know, so take it one rock at a time, one conversation at a time. But keep moving forward.
OWN YOUR REINVENTION
As a spouse, we’re used to “holding down the fort.” We’re used to making sure everyone else has what they need. It can be easy during the transition to not put your own oxygen mask on first. But, please, do. Own whatever reinvention you might want when you and your spouse are in a position to make the rules. If you want nothing to change, then own that too. There’s no right way to transition. There’s no rule that says you have to start and grow a new career, become an award-winning volunteer, or start a business. Dare to dream and own whatever you’d love to see happen the day after that circled date. And design the life you want now, because baby steps may be necessary to get it done. Decide that you matter and are worth the investment of both time and resources to set yourself up well for the day after a transition. If you aren’t sure what you want it will be easy to get lost in your spouse’s transition and let their transition consume you. Shouldering that for both of you is hard to avoid but also common. Clarity and early thinking can help. Mid-life and transition can intertwine in a way that is unnerving. If you find you need support, consider a career coach, life coach, or other personal development resource servicing this community.
TRANSITIONS ARE UNIQUE
Every transition looks different. There’s no right or wrong way to navigate this important milestone. But it is just that, a milestone. It will come and go, and life will move into a new season. In the same way that it’s often impossible to predict the weather of the season, it’s impossible to predict just how a transition from service will go. But, what I know is that those having early (and sometimes often) hard conversations – both with themselves and their spouse – about what they think and feel, emerge with a little more spring in their step. I hope that will be you, too.
Jen Pasquale is the Founder and Director of Programming for Pride & Grit, a transition support organization dedicated to the experience of seasoned military spouses. At Pride & Grit, Jen is providing personal development and community-building programming to meet spouses where they are and usher them into a season of greater clarity, conviction, and community. Jen is also a certified strengths coach, incorporating strengths-rooted programming into Pride & Grit’s support of the military spouse community.